By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 2:43 am
There are many unique things about Apple, Inc. And one of the oddest of all is the degree to which straightforward reporting about the company’s activities has been drowned out in recent years by a surging sea of rumor, speculation, prediction, and–increasingly—wishful thinking. Everybody, it seems, wants to spoil the surprise of Apple product launches by revealing the secrets which the company works so very hard to keep. But a remarkable percentage of the these soothsayers are just plain terrible at their chosen profession. They’ve become the Gang That Couldn’t Predict Straight.
As the quality of Apple scuttlebutt has nosedived, I’ve become more interested in the culture of Apple rumors than in most of the rumors themselves. With this article, I’m beginning a series on the Apple Rumor Game. And it makes sense to begin with a no-nonsense guide to judging those rumors as they crop up.
Is it possible for an educated Apple fan to figure out which product gossip is worth paying attention to, and which is is a waste of perfectly good brain cells? Yup, by simply divvying up the “evidence” that such gossip is based on into the obviously specious, the questionable, the possibly plausible, and the fairly solid.
I’m not writing this piece because I’m particularly good at gauging the veracity of Apple rumors or making Apple predictions of my own. My track record is iffy at best, and sometimes I avoid the whole matter by simply refusing to make any guesses about what the company’s got up its sleeve. I’m compiling the analysis below as much for my benefit as for yours–if all I do is remember everything I outline here, I’m more likely to speak with uncanny accuracy about Apple rumors in the future than if I rely on instinct.
So let’s consider the tea leaves that are most often used as evidence of Macs, iPods, and iPhones to come, shall we?
“Leaked Ads.” I’ve never seen an Apple product that was outed by advertising, with the possible exception of instances in which spy photos of Apple banners at Macworld lead smart observers to make intelligent guesses. Any other ad you see for an unreleased Apple product is a fake, and while the best ones are a lot of fun, they’re useless as indicators of what Apple is working on. If they had any value, we’d all be carrying the phone shown below in our pockets:
Photorealistic renderings and other concept art. Such as the touchscreen iPod below. Same deal as with ads: Very entertaining and very meaningless. Apple presumably has mockups of unreleased gadgets lurking somewhere in Cupertino, but it manages to keep them under wraps. I think almost all of us get that by now.
Patents. Apple patents are a blast to rummage through, and provide some insight into ideas that the company has fiddled with in its labs, at least–like the bizarre 1990s Frankenstein of an office machine below. But they’re hopeless when it comes to figuring out what products might show up at the Apple Store. There are just too many concepts that never lead anywhere, or take a long time to amount to anything, or emerge in a form which is impossible to divine from the patent in question.
Another problem with treating Apple patents as as a guide to upcoming Apple products: The company is good at filing those patents that might tell you something when it’s too late for rumormongers to get any use out of them. The images below are from a patent it filed just a few days before it introduced a particular product at Macworld Expo San Francisco in January 2007, and therefore didn’t show up in patent searches until there was nothing top-secret about them:
Anything predicted by analysts–and it doesn’t really matter how confident they sound. As a group, they just have too a lousy track record, and a nasty habit of presenting their guesses as something other than guesses. (How come? I plan to tackle that question in a future story.) Whether or not an article reporting on an analyst’s predictions is willing to take them seriously is irrelevant.
Many, many stories that state that Apple will do something. The kind that use telltale phrases like “has learned.” There are just too many Apple sites that are willing to present possibilities (and sometimes impossibilities) as realities.
Stories that involve Apple responding instantly to current trends. In its own strange, unexpected way, Apple is a conservative outfit, one that is often among the last to jump on a bandwagon. (It’s a smart strategy, given that so many tech bandwagons promptly march down dead ends.) The original iPod Shuffle didn’t show up until the market for very basic flash-based MP3 players was already seemingly saturated, and the Mac Mini came years after Windows desktops had gotten dirt cheap. So given that the whole netbook fad is scarcely over a year old, it was less than likely that Macworld would respond at last month’s Macworld Expo.
Stories that involve Apple slashing prices to go after market share. It’s not that Apple never lowers prices to move more product–but pundits knowingly say it’s going to happen far more than it really does.
Anything that involves Apple releasing an array of major new products all at once. As Macworld Expo approaches, Apple fans often have visions of jam-packed keynotes dancing in their heads–an iPhone Nano and a new Mac Mini and a new iMac and a touchscreen Mac and new software. In reality, Apple’s resources are far from unlimited, and it’s rare for it to release more than one true biggie at a time. Even rumors involving two significant products arriving simultaneously usually turn out to be fiction. Remember, Steve Jobs is famous for pretending that minor products are an event’s big news so that the one truly major product can be his “one more thing.” He does that at least in part because he has to.
Rumors where the math and/or basic logic don’t seem to add up. For several reasons, I was instantly skeptical about a December rumor that Wal-Mart would sell a $99 iPhone. I was right. Then again, in December, 2007 I was equally skeptical that it would sell a flash-based subnotebook. In January, it released the MacBook Air, with flash as a pricey option. (At least I prefaced my doubt by saying it was dumb to try to figure out what Apple would or wouldn’t do.)
Poorly-sourced, unlikely-sounding news from unlikely sources. I’m not saying that a publication like the UK’s Daily Mail declares that Apple is about to release an iPhone Nano with a display on the front and touch-wheel control on the back, it’s far safer to assume it’s wrong than to believe it.